Last May, a group of 18 high school sophomores and juniors divvied up the world they knew — or that they wanted to know — and then spent a week writing a series of investigative stories that left this teacher altered.

The quality of the work was strong — exceptional in parts — but that’s not what made me wonder if I’d been doing it wrong for nearly 25 years. 

What made me rethink my approach? The terror and power of letting go. 

I am lucky enough to work at a school that has tackled the tyranny of time. Built into the yearly schedule are two Intensives —  three weeks where students take one course, five days a week, all day. The structure allows for more depth and focus than a typical schedule. It also allows for travel. 

My journalism intensive spent two days in Pittsburgh at Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation, which is led by prize-winning former investigative journalist, Andy Conte. Before we arrived in Pittsburgh, we’d already learned the foundational principles of journalism and explored exemplars that lived out the mission of the investigative press, namely to ask hard questions of systems and their agents and then to pursue answers regardless of what those answers might be. 

Conte walked the group through a series of exercises that helped them identify issues in their community that they knew were important and that they wanted to better understand.  The whiteboards filled with a sea of words and topics that the students then clustered based on shared themes. Topics that started as personal gripes and curiosities morphed into larger, more interesting questions. 

Then Conte asked the students to head out to Market Square where, for an hour, they were to approach perfect strangers to ask them what upset, excited, confused them about their community. The class was game for the challenge, but it took ten minutes before most of them found the courage to ask a person in the Square a question and to listen deeply for answers. 

The act was so simple that it shouldn’t have been so profound, but there it is. I watched these 15 and 16 year olds embrace their roles as curious citizens as opposed to dutiful students. They became — or rather, they revealed themselves to be — human beings interested in other human beings.

The next day, we set about making teams for investigative stories. My initial plan was to divide the class into six groups of three. My initial plan included directives on the roles members needed to play. My initial plan had a timeline of when various elements would be due, would receive feedback, would/would/would…

The problem was that they didn’t want to do what I thought they should do. Instead, two teams of two emerged, as did one team of five. And they didn’t want to assume the roles I’d designed or limit themselves to the schedule that I’d envisioned. They wanted to do it their way. 

What happened over the next few days has made me rethink my approach to teaching. The teams surprised themselves with how much they cared, and they designed projects that went farther and deeper than anything a tightly constructed assignment would ever have inspired or even allowed. 

Drawn into the unknown by their curiosities and their commitment to getting the story right, these journalists quickly learned the skills and habits of the profession. They called strangers who had intimidating professional titles, sat down with adults who held views different than their own, dug deeper than they expected to dig because there was no teacher telling them when they were done.

What did I do during this time? I became the ornery editor, the one who pushed for more interviews, better research, harder questions. I also became comfortable with answering questions I didn’t know how to answer with “I don’t know.” It wasn’t  my job to know everything. It was my job to nudge and to let go. 

I am so glad I did.

This project made me wonder what more students could learn if that learning happened through experiences like these ones. Or whether students would learn more if I held off teaching specific techniques until students were in a position for those techniques to truly matter.  

This investigative project left me with my own investigation. Mine was about growth — as in how to encourage it and how to seek it for myself.  As school begins again, I am taking these lessons with me without knowing precisely where they’ll lead me.

Click on the image to read the students’ articles!

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Terry Dubow

Terry Dubow

I agree with Kurt Vonnegut who once said that the act of teaching allowed him to “infect people with humanity.” That sounds about right. I teach English at Hawken, and I’m glad to be part of a team that’s reimagining how we might structure school to help students grow in enduring and humane ways.

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